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The Stasi and the Große data

Updated: Oct 8

The Stasi really liked their data—and, indeed, their main purpose was to amass paperwork. It’s true the Stasi did some horrendous things to people—they were cruel and brutal. Yet their work mostly centred on the collection of a vast picture of day-to-day life and opinion in the German Democratic Republic. To give some perspective to it, the GDR total population was about 16.7M and at its height the Stasi had 203,000 “unofficial collaborators”—people who fed it information. The state’s third-largest city, Karl-Marx Stadt (Chemnitz), had a population of around 220,000 in this era—so there was basically a city of Stasi informers.

What is remarkable about the detailed picture the Stasi built up of the population was that they did very little with the data so amassed whatsoever—it more or less fulfilled a passion for paperwork. In practical terms, the Stasi most liked to track down “thought crimes”. So, for example, a popular means of protest was to drop a postcard into the mail with a dissident slogan on it. These were plucked out by postal workers and sent to the Stasi to be examined.

Hence a teenager sent a postcard that included “Heil Hitler!” and called for support for the West German nationalist party the NPD. The Stasi worked out the rough age range of the writer from the handwriting and then organised a special essay assignment in all the schools in the target city. They went through every essay until they found the handwriting that matched the card—the writer turned out to be the son of a loyal party member, he was sentenced to two years in prison.

You get the impression of the lengths the East German state went to and the resources they were prepared to commit for something totally petty—involving every school in a city, taking hours for the essays to be written and collated, and then pouring over all the handwriting (samples were kept for years to try and identify anonymous graffiti writers—the anon is always an essential figure, people who fear anons always serve the regime; and I mean “the regime” in the metaphysical sense here, not a particular government but Satan himself—i.e. “all heroes wear masks”).

The Stasi could also work out the type of typewriter a message was written on just by looking at it—so no escape there either; and they honed in on graffiti just as much as on anonymous letter-writers. Indeed, they were very concerned with belief—it’s a commonality in the Semitic religions, Christianity and Marxism, there’s a deep concern about whether you “really believe it”, and there is only “one truth” you are allowed to believe.

The opposite viewpoint was that put forward by Frederick the Great of Prussia—think what you like, only obey. It’s the aristocratic concern with actions, not thoughts—whereas Marxists, Muslims, Jews, and Christians are always interrogating themselves for the “dirty thoughts” and “dirty words”, for “thought crimes”.

Hence, unlike the SS, the Stasi zeroed-in on “belief violations”—although, as an author on the Stasi noted, as the Stasi themselves noted, the mass demonstrations in the GDR never achieved the genuine spontaneous popularity these events found in Hitler’s Germany (in other words, there was the real national popular enthusiasm, and the fake Communist enthusiasm—the latter, ironically, meant to derive from “the masses”).

As a leftist organisation, the Stasi also specialised in a very feminine approach to stifle dissent. Rather than whisk people off to concentration camps, in the style of the SS (masculine, rightist), it instead launched poison pen campaigns to discredit people—suggested they were having affairs, were alcoholics etc. Hilariously, the ultimate “poison pen” sanction from the Stasi was to start a rumour that their mark was an informer for the Stasi.

The irony with all the Stasi data was that, despite the careful measures to monitor the population’s sentiment, when the regime was overthrown in a counter-revolution the Stasi was powerless. This was because the regime couldn’t react to the information it received.

There was one example where a surgeon was forced to be an informer for the Stasi; for about 30 years, he provided updates on his hospital: reported the shortage of rubber gloves, and operating tables that spontaneously moved during operations due to hydraulic failure. Nothing was done.

The reason nothing was done was because to do anything to fix these problems—in all sectors, which the Stasi detailed with Germanic bureaucratic precision—would have required the leadership to drop certain assumptions (viz., that socialism worked). Of course, the one thing they couldn’t do was drop the assumption—hence the data was, in effect, useless.

Problems are often solved when assumptions are dropped—as with relativity and the postulated “ether”, if you allow that time is relative and not absolute then the problem of the notional “ether” that scientists could find no evidence of is circumvented. Drop an assumption, solve the problem. Yet belief-based regimes like the GDR, unlike aristocratic regimes, are rigid in their assumptions (today, we also live in a belief-based regime that has lots of data but cannot drop certain assumptions to use that data).

The Stasi liked to measure things a lot. As related in a previous post, a West German couple who said they had binoculars near a military base “because they were looking to see if there were still catfish in the pond (of their old home)” were tailed for a year.

The Stasi measured the pond (height and depth) and read the only scientific monograph about European catfish—they concluded that a catfish could not have lived in the pond given the relative dimensions, and so the couple were spies with a catfish cover-story. However, what they never did—which would have been wise and scientific—was to look in the pond for fish (locals later confirmed that a fish like the catfish lived in the pond).

To me, this says something about pseudo-science as filtered through bureaucracy—everything was measured precisely, scientific documents were consulted…and yet no one checked to see if there were fish in the pond and what sort; instead, the story’s veracity was to be ascertained through measurements and reference to an article. The contrary position, just to check, accords with both wisdom and the scientific method itself.

Indeed, the Stasi loved to measure things—for example, a lightbulb tossed from a high-rise flat once landed on an official’s car. This was taken (legitimately, I think) as a protest against the regime—the bulb was photographed with ruler in place (to show how far across the hood it was), then itself measured.

I find these stories about the Stasi and their vast documentation network to somehow be an allegory for Guénon’s “reign of quantity” itself—in that you have this vast state bureaucracy dedicated to measuring things, quantifying things (even Stasi agents were expected to recruit a certain number of informants, even if they gave junk quality information—there was “crushing” pressure from above to “meet the numbers”). There is surely a parallel to much of what passes for science, particularly climate science, in the West today—and to Western bureaucracy in general.

It’s also similar to the science of Aristotle—a science that documented and classified to a precise degree but which never achieved the power of modern Western science, it could marshal data but that was all done for its own sake.

There was no real science, nor any real wisdom in the whole Stasi operation—the collection of data was its own justification and served mainly to prevent trivial non-crimes, essentially thought crimes. The greatest irony is that the Stasi, “the Ministry for State Security”, could do absolutely nothing to prevent the state it attempted to “secure” from being overthrown—at a certain level, the whole operation was impotent.


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